The FIRST Race-based Walkout

Educational Segregation in Gary, Indiana

I could run through all my materials and find every single instance of slight, snark, and racism printed on paper, but it would be a waste of my time. So instead, I want to focus more on the more consequential, hard-to-talk-about subjects, like Gary’s long-lasting scholastic segregation problem.

William A. Wirt

Blacks and other immigrants started out attending the same schools as whites. However, William Albert Wirt — Gary’s first superintendent of public schools — was under pressure by white parents to segregate the children of Gary. I don’t know if Wirt truly felt racial segregation was necessary. He’s an intelligent, brainy sort of guy. It would have been practical and economical to mix the kids. The decision to segregate could have been purely a political decision from his standpoint.

Regardless, he implemented his ‘work-study-play’ program. The program didn’t initially include segregation, but he was able to fit it inside. Educational segregation was stringent enough to satisfy white parents. Segregation had racial separation of minority/immigrant children and staff. Black and Mexican children, exclusively, would not be allowed to attend school with white children. In addition, the school system made it so that kids couldn’t participate in schools built for them within the same neighborhoods as whites. The schools had to be wholly separated racially and geographically.

After construction crews completed Emerson and Jefferson schools, Wirt ordered leftover portable school buildings used for white children for immigrant and black children. Eventually, schoolhouses made of brick took the place of the portables. Below is a list I’ve compiled myself of all black/immigrant public schools that I know of:

  • Twenty-fourth Avenue Public School at 24th & Adams (1909)
  • Fourteenth Avenue Public School (Fourteenth Avenue Public Grammar School) [location unknown]
  • Unnamed colored elementary/high school at 13th & Massachusetts (across from 1169 Massachusetts)
  • Unnamed colored elementary/high school at 14th & Broadway/Massachusetts
    [on the grounds of the former GPD building]
    First black school in Lake County. Not the same as the other Fourteenth Avenue School, which was an immigrant/white school.
  • Unnamed colored school at 22nd & Adams [behind the former GPTC car barn at 22nd & Jefferson] (demolished)
  • The unnamed colored school between 15th & 16th Avenues (1908)
    [was Dave Johnson’s boarding house and bar]
  • Unknown colored school on Virginia Street
Location of first black school in Lake County.
Colored schoolhouse (red box). Immigrant schoolhouse (yellow marker).

Gary’s educational segregation policy started the week of Friday, March 5, 1909. Blacks and immigrants got forced to pack up their stuff and be prepared to leave Jefferson and Emerson schools by that date. Monday, March 8th, was when the first segregated school opened. Lake County’s first black school was principled by Mr. Everett Simpson, a black educator from Bloomington, IN. Gary “needeth not to be ashamed” of the new segregated school. Still, Gary Public Schools would not provide a single dollar. The new black school needed to put on shows at church to raise money to purchase books and to make young black kids have “a consciousness of ability.” A month after it opened, enrollment declined—the unsightly portable buildings got reserved for black students for 20 years.

Gary black students inside a portable school

The portables were a far cry from the up-to-date facilities blacks had previously been allowed to partake. Black kids especially did not want to be segregated, but the school board swiftly silenced any noise they made about the matter. The newspapers indicated blacks eventually come around to the idea of segregation, and soon, they would be excited about being amongst their kind. I HIGHLY doubt that they ever did become excited.

There was another unknown social slight against blacks in Gary during its early history. The ‘Clear out the Negro’ campaigns. As a result, any blacks — well-to-do or otherwise — were forced to move out of Gary’s affluent areas into the undeveloped areas south of the Wabash Railroad tracks. This area was known as ‘The Patch.’ Not only were blacks rounded up and moved, but non-English speaking immigrants and other undesirable ethnic groups got forced (especially those who were not wealthy or socially acceptable) to move. These campaigns took place around the same time as Gary Community Schools installed segregation in the school system.

Immigrant Gary students.

Simpson got offered a lucrative invitation to return to Bloomington and retake control of black schools down there. He didn’t want to leave Gary — even though the offer included more money. He was impressed by Wirt’s “hospitality.” Though the school system did not officially financially contribute to black schools, Wirt apparently — somehow — financially contributed what he could himself. Simpson got his materials requests fulfilled — mostly — when he asked Wirt for help. Unfortunately, this didn’t include books. He also saw that his presence was assisting black students in dealing with the shock of segregation. So he decided to stay in Gary.

Black kids were able to put on shows to raise money during the summer months inside Emerson’s auditorium. During a disease prevention parade in Gary, this statement got printed in the local paper:

“They carried anti-disease signs with mottoes in 39 languages. Every son of an Aryian to the latest Turk in town was able to read one or more of these signs, but the colored children couldn’t.”

Sentiments like that did nothing to promote racial unity.

THE FIRST WHITE SCHOOL WALKOUT

There was a race-based walkout at a high school before the well-known strike at Froebel in 1945. Of course, that’s the year we won World War II, but they’re worried about the color of people’s skin. Anyway.

This story is based on a blog post I found. Michelle McGill-Vargas wrote it in 2015, and newspaper archive reports.

By 1927, Conditions at Gary’s old black schools were deplorable. As a result, four black students successfully registered to attend classes at Emerson in years prior. This event seemed to cause no stir inside the school — at least not in print. Yet, in 1927, two new black students began classes at Emerson— bringing the grand total of black students to six. When 1927 started, white students and staff were shocked and surprised to see the two new black sophomores.
That was two too many.

Emerson Class of 1927 school students.

Rumors began to fly that the school board was planning on moving 100 black high school students from their schools on what was then known as ‘the South Side’ (Midtown today) to Emerson. Fear swelled silently. It is unknown if there were any incidents involving the six black students during this time. Still, the racial tension at Emerson was reaching a high point, and everybody could feel it. Supposedly, on September 22nd, a locked door caused a teenaged traffic jam inside the school. While waiting for the door to be unlocked, the media alleged that racist comments were spoken to a few Senior black kids — from Senior white kids. This event led to a confrontation. It is unknown what the fight was over. Maybe a black kid hit a white kid. Or vice versa. Maybe there was an argument or some pushing around. Whatever happened, shit went down.

On Friday, September 23, 1927, four white students (reports say they were band leaders) called to meet after school hours with other white kids and a few of their parents. During this meeting, the four meeting-callers got picked to speak for the entire student body to discuss what to do about the ‘colored problem.’ At the end of the meeting, the group decided that the whole student body would strike the next school day.

Monday, September 26, 1927

The entire student body came to school as usual and went to class. At 10 a.m., on the dot, 300 Emerson students walked out in a mass protest. They poured out of Emerson in a white wave, cutting through the Emerson neighborhood towards Broadway. They even got their marching band to lead the march! The striking children got their parents to join in. The parents vowed to keep their kids out of school as long as black students were enrolled. Downtown Gary business owners and shop keepers were angry about the disruption and tried to stop the protest at first. However, once they heard what the protest was about, some lent support.

1927 Emerson concert band.

School staff met the protesters in the streets and sternly demanded they return to the school. The commands got ignored. Instead, the protesters demanded staff to straighten the ‘colored problem’ out. The staff was powerless to do anything about the black students, of course. Action needed to be taken by Superintendent Wirt and the school board. The school board had planned on sending eighteen more black students (far from the rumored 100) to attend classes at Emerson, who had all registered. When this news hit the protesters, they became even more angry and agitated. They didn’t want six black kids at Emerson, let alone twenty-four. Everyone decided to make good on their threat and continue the protest.

Tuesday, September 27th

The news of 18 new black students sparked something deep and dark in the Gary school body. By the morning, rumors of several hundred new black students attending Emerson and Horace Mann circulated. Nearly the entire school body joined the strike — over 1,000 strong! As the streets of Gary filled with frothing angry white kids and their parents, Mayor Floyd Williams sent the police out to round them up and push them back to school grounds — as requested by Superintendent Wirt. GPD cut the kids off, preventing them from leaving the downtown district. They then moved the crowd back towards Emerson. Once the kids reached the school grounds, Emerson’s staff announced they all would be expelled and have their credits taken from them if they did not return to school immediately. This threat was enough to get the majority of the kids back into the building.

However, things did not calm down. The students, parents, and staff members organized a second mass student body meeting. Greeting the children inside the school auditorium was Wirt. He got the crowd to quiet down so they could have a conversation. Wirt explained that conditions and accommodations at the black schools were horrid. Black students and their families were complaining they were being treated as sub-human and were pressuring the school system to do something about the declining conditions of their schools. This problem required him to accept the registration of black students. He denied rumors of hundreds of black students enrolling at Emerson and Horace Mann and ordered them to return to classes to wait for him and the school board to compromise.

The students returned to class, but the protest organizers warned they would walk out for a third time if the currently enrolled black students were in the building the next day.

Wednesday, September 28th

The black students returned for class, and for a third time, the protesting students walked out. Numbering around 600, they held another meeting in the auditorium. They yelled, “We won’t go back until the school’s white!” and some students and parents made banners and posters declaring much of the same. When speakers spoke in favor of the strike, they were cheered. Speakers in opposition to the strike got booed. Parents of the protesters also complained about the attitude of the school board, accusing them of such things as not to write down. Both sides of the issue got hopelessly deadlocked. When the principal, E. A. Spaulding, attempted to adjourn the meeting, the students demanded he forgives the absences from school. He refused.

Wirt got presented an agreement to sign. The agreement stated that the 24 negros needed to leave, and if that occurred, the students would return to class. If it were not possible, black students could stay at Emerson, but only if they segregated classes, kept from playing in sports, and kept from eating lunch with whites by segregating the cafeteria. When Wirt refused to sign, the protesters rose in a raucous and left the school.

Emerson Principal E. A. Spaulding and Assistant Principal Elizabeth Leeds

Once again outside, they spread their propaganda in businesses and white residential districts. The more noise they made, the more their parents vowed to help their kids win their fight. Finally, they organized at East Side (Buffington) Park, erected a bandstand, and were pontificated about their rights.

“We have the businessmen and our parents behind us and we are going to win!”

“Emerson has always been an all-white school and we declare today that we will keep it that way!”

When news of the continued protest at the park hit Wirt’s ears, he finally got angry. He requested police to break up the rally once again. Eventually, they did but not before encouraging the kids. After the encouragement, they had to do their jobs and threatened the kids with arrest if they did not go home. The kids dispersed, but pockets of protesters took root on corners, screaming at the top of their lungs not to attend classes if the blacks were still there in the morning.

Emerson’s example was inspiring Horace Mann’s students. Rumors circulated that Mann would plan a walkout if the school board sent any number of black students there. Instead, protesters lined up at City Hall and yelled at the City Council about black enrollment. This display resulted in Mayor Williams ordering the police to stop all future protests and walkouts.

Behind closed doors, the school board met with Emerson officials, Gary’s safety committee, police chief, and Mayor Williams. Once again, the school board declared their hands were tied as long as there was no room for black students in the black schools. However, if Wirt found space, perhaps everyone could reach a compromise until they could raise enough funds to erect an all-black school on 25th & Virginia.

The media spoke very little about the black reaction to all of this. One can only imagine. The media reported that some blacks were planning on protesting and marching themselves. When police got wind of these plans, they violently broke up their meetings and threatened them if they followed through with any protest of any sort. Ah, the past.

Thursday, September 29th

On this day, the strikers planned another mass meeting of Emerson students and parents. They met in the schools' auditorium. Also present were two black students. When a student announced their presence, they were jeered and told forcefully to leave the hall. The original four organizers of the mass protest then announced they had won their fight. The school board would immediately remove all black students (save for three seniors) and place them in temporary buildings on the South Side with the rest of the black student overflow, as long as Emerson students agreed to give them 90 days. After cheering loudly in agreement, the students made good on their promise and returned to classes.

HOLY SHIT

What follows next is my opinion.

William A. Wirt was not a stupid or incompetent man by any stretch of the imagination. Without getting into his history too profoundly, he was very accomplished and well respected in Gary. He got a school named after him, for Christ’s sake. Wirt was no one’s fool — being a brilliant and influential figure in American education during his time.

The nation's school systems immediately implemented Wirt’s ‘work-study-play’ program nationwide. I am pretty sure his segregationist policy was not originally a part of ‘work-study-play’. It’s my opinion that segregation goes against the principles of ‘work-study-play’. If a nobody such as myself can see that, certainly a man like Wirt could. Including segregation in ‘work-study-play’ is like trying to catch an avalanche and put it back on the mountain.

I’m no expert on Wirt by any means. I have no idea if he genuinely felt segregation was necessary or thought segregation was just too expensive to implement and impractical from the standpoint of business and not morals. From what I’ve read, segregation of Gary’s schools got requested by outside parties. When Wirt started in Gary, the schools built at the time were racially mixed, including Emerson. Also, from what I’ve read, the agitation of racial sentiments in Gary, in general, was started by steel mill officials who didn’t like the idea of living next door to undesirables — black or otherwise.

I can’t speak for Wirt’s personal feelings towards segregation. So, I’m forced to rely upon his actions to formulate my opinion. Based on what he tried to do, it is my opinion that Wirt was against segregation — at least for fiscal reasons. However, he went along with it because the people he worked for demanded it. The Emerson protest ended Wirt’s covert attempts to desegregate Gary’s schools and save a few pennies in the process. Gary’s school board and city officials favored desegregation behind closed doors, but their ultimate motives are even more unclear. Politicians or school officials never publicly spoke in a manner that made it seem like they were de-segregationists. They wanted peace and not chaos — even referring to the sole black councilman for advice on proceeding. That is unprecedented — considering the period this takes place, in my opinion.

Mayor Williams, Gary’s first black councilman A. R. Whitlock, Wirt, and others held secret meetings the entire time the protests occurred. The sessions were private; however, the media printed that Mayor Williams wanted white parents to “see the light” and agree to allow blacks into Emerson. Wirt also had intelligence that the Ku Klux Klan was the real agitators behind the protest, with at least one or more white student’s parents being members. This caused Wirt to stall, delay action, and not appear to bow to the whim of that racist organization. The Ku Klux Klan was at its peak during the 20s. However, though Gary was majority white, the Klan’s presence was generally frowned upon — at least politically.

Lost in all of this was the collective black perspective. The six black students were placing themselves in danger every day they arrived throughout the protests. I thought about what their parents were going through. I thought about how they must have felt, knowing that their presence was unwanted. This event took place 30 years before the Little Rock Nine. I don’t know who these six black Gary Emerson students were. I want to find out one day to pay my respects.

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Amateur local historian, Gary, IN native.

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Korry Shepard

Korry Shepard

Amateur local historian, Gary, IN native.

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